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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pandemic projects: Soccer referee finds time to build over 180 wooden toy cars for Christmas Bureau

Don Knowlton shows off some of the dozens of wooden truck toys he has built during the pandemic shutdown in his Spokane basement and destined for the Christmas Bureau. He is photographed at his home Oct. 28.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Don Knowlton shows off some of the dozens of wooden truck toys he has built during the pandemic shutdown in his Spokane basement and destined for the Christmas Bureau. He is photographed at his home Oct. 28. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Police cars with googly eyes.

Dump trucks, tow trucks, fire trucks, roadsters and iconic Batmobiles.

Soon these colorful handmade wooden vehicles will be in the hands of happy children thanks to Don Knowlton and some pandemic-induced free time.

“I’m a soccer referee,” said Knowlton, 77. “I started reffing in 1974 and I still ref, but I just do JV now.”

He grinned.

“I’m getting too old for varsity.”

When spring soccer was canceled due to COVID-19, he wondered what he’d do with his free time. Then he recalled a newspaper article mentioning a shortage of wooden cars at the Christmas Bureau.

The Christmas Bureau is a collaboration among Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. Every year, the community donates money collected by the newspaper and distributed to the two charities to help make Christmas special for families in need.

Knowlton isn’t a novice woodworker. He’d made rocking horses for his grandchildren and family friends, and his carefully crafted wooden flowers disappeared from his South Hill lawn almost as soon as he put them out. But he hadn’t attempted toy cars and trucks until March.

He found templates online for some vehicles, and others he designed himself. Much of the wood he used was recycled and repurposed.

“I was driving down the street and saw a new constructions site,” Knowlton said. “I stopped, and they told me to take whatever scrap wood I wanted from the cut-offs pile.”

Another time he saw a stack of wood pallets in a neighbor’s backyard.

“He told me to help myself,” Knowlton said.

After purchasing axles, wheels, spray paint and trim pieces, Santa’s helper began building in earnest.

“I usually make five or six at a time,” he said. “Part of the fun is deciding how I can make them unique.”

For example, he used Popsicle sticks to make the side panels on the farm trucks. His fire truck ladders feature rungs made of plastic straws.

“The police cars were fun and challenging,” Knowlton said. “They were important because right now the police aren’t liked very much by some.”

He learned as he went. Next year he won’t use spray paint, because he thinks using a brush will give the cars more luster.

It was a good thing he had some time on his hands, because Knowlton estimates cutting each batch of vehicles took a day, sanding took two days, and assembling and painting took another couple of days.

His basement began to look like Santa’s workshop as the boxes of toys piled up. A total of 182 cars and trucks later, he’s ready to deliver them to the Christmas Bureau. For Knowlton, that’s the best part of his pandemic project.

“The most enjoyable thing will be when the kids see them,” he said.

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